Put on your purple and black, the festival is back!

Keith David smiles as he enters into the Gala at The Benton Convention Center.

Put on your purple and black, the festival is back!
August 01
00:00 2019

Gala kicks off 16th biennial National Black Theatre Festival

The 2019 National Black Theatre Festival got off to a Marvtastic start earlier this week with the star-studded opening night Gala. On the evening of the event, the lobby of the Benton Convention Center screamed black excellence with attendees wearing dazzling gowns and formalwear of purple and black.

While members of the Carver High School Marching Band kept the music going outside, inside the Benton on a backdrop of various African-inspired paintings, stars like Andre De Shields, Bill Cobb, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Keith David and countless others mingled with local elected officials, business owners, and even festivalgoers who just wanted a quick picture.

As they made their way to their seats, it seemed as if everyone stopped and took a look at the giant hand-painted portrait of the late Larry Leon Hamlin. Founded by Hamlin in 1989, the National Black Theatre Festival is a six-day celebration of African American theatre and those who continue to push the culture forward through the arts. The gala, which is traditionally held on the first night of the festival, serves as an awards ceremony where actors, playwrights, directors, and other creatives are celebrated for their contributions to the cause of preserving Black Theatre.

To jumpstart the gala, comedian Michael Colyar and former WXII news anchor Wanda Starke kept the crowd going with a few jokes. After dinner and the traditional processional led by drummers and performers from Otesha Creative Arts, greetings from city officials and celebrity co-chairs Margaret “Suge” Avery and Chester Gregory, the awards ceremony officially got underway.

Special Recognition Awards were presented to Rhodessa Jones, Idris Ackamoor, and Herman Levern Thompson-Jones. Living Legend Awards were presented to Roscoe Orman, Thembi Mtshali, Marjorie Moon, and Art Evans.

Xavier Pierce received the award for Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design and Winston-Salem native French La’Vern was presented the award for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design. Retired Winston-Salem State University professor Dr. Elwanda Ingram was presented the Theatre Arts & Humanitarian Award for her dedication to the festival and the N.C. Black Repertory Company (NCBRC). 

Outstanding Achievement in Scenic Design was awarded to James V. Thomas, Outstanding Achievement in Stage Management was awarded to Femi Sarah Heggie, and Black Spectrum Theatre Company, which is located in New York, received the Theatre Longevity Award. The Marvtastic Philanthropy Award was presented to a representative from BB&T.

Tony-nominated actor turned director Michele Shay received the Lloyd Richards Director Award, and novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and professor, Pearl Cleage, was awarded the August Wilson Playwright Award. Chicago native Kamilah Forbes took home the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award.

A new award was presented during the gala this year as well. The Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin Rolling World Premier Award was awarded to Nambi E. Kelley. Currently serving as playwright-in-residence at New Victory Theatre and The Dramatists Guild Foundation in New York City, Kelley has been commissioned by the N.C. Black Repertory Company to write “Maya,” a stage production inspired by the life and legacy of the late Maya Angelou. The award, named after NCBRC board president and the widow of Larry Leon Hamlin, guarantees at least three regional productions of the play.

When she took the stage, Kelley thanked the NCBRC and NBTF for their continued support. She said, “Thank you, I am honored. I am blessed and my intention is to continue to serve you all the days of my life.”

The coveted Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award was presented to Tony and Emmy Award winner Leslie Uggams. A native of New York, Uggams got her start in theatre at the young age of six. By the time she was nine, Uggams was wowing crowds at the famous Apollo Theater. Throughout the 1960s, she showcased her talents on a range of shows including “Your Show of Shows,” “The Milton Berle Show,” “The Arthur Godfrey Show” and several others. She also made appearances on “Empire,” “Nurse Jackie,” and the blockbuster movies “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2.”

After receiving her award from her close friend, Andre De Shields, Uggams said she has always loved performing and being on stage. She said what helped her early on was having amazing mentors and actors to work with and that’s what we need more of today to continue pushing Black Theatre in the right direction.   

“Even at six years old, I knew that I was working with greatness and I always tried to do what I needed to do to be successful and it has been a glorious time in this business,” she said. “In this business, it’s a family affair. That’s what it’s all about. We all have to help each other out. And I’m here to tell you that Black Theatre will be vibrant.”

Following the gala, celebrity guests and festivalgoers traveled to the Stevens Center to see the opening production of “Jelly’s Last Jam.” Directed by Jackie Alexander and produced by the NCBRC, the award-winning musical tells the story of innovator Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, who later became Jelly Roll Morto, a jazz pioneer.

The National Black Theatre Festival will run through Saturday, August 3. For more information and ticket prices visit

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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